Review: American Psycho

IMG_20160503_215155191Have I lost my critical faculties? Do I just like everything now? I wondered, as I walked away from the Schoenfeld theater after seeing American Psycho on Broadway. Because the truth is that I had a great time, and found the new musical daring, dynamic, funny, and memorable. I felt a little embarrassed, because I wasn’t totally sure that it was a good show. But then as my friend Christine said: “I know a lot of people who liked American Psycho, and they’re all kind of embarrassed about it.”

So why did we like it? And why are we a little embarrassed?

Let’s start with the story. I know that everyone else has seen the movie American Psycho, or finished the book. I haven’t done either, and I found the slasher story pretty compelling. Patrick Bateman is a shallow, preppy, materialistic 1980s Wall Street type who is obsessed with Donald J. Trump. (It’s hard to believe the Trump thing is actually from the original source material, but it certainly is.) He’s a wealthy consumer — he loves telling us about his high-end lotions, clothing, electronics and so on — with an equally consumerist fiance (Helene Yorke) and materialistic group of friends. And he just happens to be a serial killer.

It’s a razor-sharp satire — or, well, to be more exact, American Psycho WAS a razor-sharp satire. I’m still in the middle of reading Bret Easton Ellis’s original novel, and it pulls no punches. The musical, on the other hand, is half murderous satire, half 1980s nostalgia comedy. Part of this can’t be helped: that’s where the story is set, after all. But this show has a lot of fun with its 1980s backdrop. This is certainly evident in Robert Aguirre-Sacasa’s sometimes uneven book. Much of Ellis’s original prose is preserved, but now functions as a knowing wink to the past. And the nostalgia is amplified in director Rupert Goold’s production. Everything from the movement to the scenery to the costumes is totally, outrageously of its era. So maybe this adaptation distances us from some of the more horrifying aspects of the story, or the more biting satirical commentary. Oh well. Who cares? American Psycho the musical (like its characters) may be a little relentless in its search for a good time. But it kind of feels like something that Patrick Bateman himself would love.

The music and lyrics are by Duncan Sheik, of Spring Awakening fame. His songs sound vaguely 1980s: high energy, pulsing rhythms, electronic instrumentation, a little cheesy. The music is good; the lyrics are not. (“You’re such a card,” the guys sing to their business cards.) There are also a few genuine 1980s songs, as well: Hip to Be Square, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Don’t You Want Me, In the Air Tonight. Given that I always want original music in a musical, I felt a little guilty for preferring the real 1980s music (by Phil Collins et al) to Mr. Sheik’s score. On the other hand, most people in my generation would probably feel the same way. It’s in our bloodstream by this point.

As for the cast: I’ve already gone too long without mentioning Benjamin Walker. In other words: I’m starting to understand the hoopla. From his first moment he was mesmerizing, charismatic, creepy. He’s hilarious too. The role is enormous — he’s onstage nearly the entire show — and he absolutely commands the space. It’s a highly physical part, too. I honestly don’t understand why Mr. Walker wasn’t nominated for a Tony. (But more on that in a different post.) It was that kind of compelling performance, as far as I was concerned. (On the other hand, I’m a little worried that people will think I only liked him because he is quite handsome, very toned, and spent half the show in his underpants. Not true! Not true at all!)

Then there’s Helene Yorke, who I remember well from her brassy performance in the mediocre Bullets Over Broadway. Evelyn, Patrick’s fiance, is a similarly cartoonish character to Olive of Bullets Over Broadway, but it seems to fit Ms. Yorke better, somehow. It could be the characterization is funnier, or it could be that the tone of American Psycho fits better with her style of comedy than Bullets did. Either way, she’s great here.

I was at a bit of a loss with Jennifer Damiano’s performance. Ms. Damiano plays Patrick’s secretary Jean. She’s a sweet girl and secretly in love with Patrick. (Bad choice, Jean!) Ms. Damiano surprised me with the utter expressionlessness of her performance. Seemingly every line was delivered in a deadpan monotone. I was completely fascinated by this. I mean, this is clearly a performance decision and not just bad acting. But I couldn’t really figure out why. Maybe to set Jean off from the cartoonishness of the rest of the company? Or… or… maybe she is speaking in a completely normal voice, and it only sounds monotonous because the rest of the cast is so over the top? Or… is it actually bad acting? I’m not sure.

So maybe by this point you can see where I’m coming from. There are reasons why I’m embarrassed (the lyrics, the overt nostalgia, the sometimes clunky book) and reasons I liked American Psycho anyway (Benjamin Walker and the rest of the cast, the compelling story, the excellent comedic moments, the music). At this point it seems pretty obvious why the show got such divided reviews. And why it got mostly ignored by the Tony nominators. But I call “no fair.” This is a show that takes more risks than any other new musical on Broadway this season (except Hamilton). And I think that’s something we should root for.

My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Ticket price: $59 (Box office with discount)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Next Up: My Tony nomination reactions

Review: Spring Awakening

Hello again after an unexpected summer off blogging and theater. There were several reasons why I didn’t see much of anything since the Tonys, and why I didn’t post about the few shows I did see. But who needs excuses? (OK, for those of you who do need excuses: I broke my foot, spent two months on crutches, and had to take cabs everywhere. I felt too poor and immobile to want to go see any theater.) In any case, I’m back and feeling refreshed. (Though I’m still limping.)

Now shall we get right to it?

spring awakeningEver wonder why I abandoned my dream of becoming a professional theater critic? One reason was my reaction to Spring Awakening. I had long appreciated the Wedekind play, so I saw the musical at the Atlantic in its original off-Broadway incarnation in 2006. (This is the same production that took Broadway by storm a few months later.) Long story short: I didn’t care for it much. It’s nearly a decade ago now, so I don’t remember my thoughts precisely, but as I recall I thought it was a little ham-fisted. In any case, I later saw the Broadway production a number of times, and completely changed my mind about the musical. My revised opinion: it was powerful, beautifully staged, edgy, and very, very exciting. I recommended it to nearly all my friends, and even purchased tickets FOR them on occasion. I wondered how I could ever have disliked this. And how could I ever be a theater critic when I could change my mind so completely about a show?

Here’s where things get interesting. As it turns out, I’ve come full circle on Spring Awakening after seeing the new Broadway incarnation. It’s a fascinating musical, and it’s given a wonderful new production, but once again: I didn’t really care for it. (But I still don’t want to be a professional theater critic, as it turns out. Blogging is more fun!)

But that’s putting the cart before the horse. First, let me talk about the revival, which is a Deaf West production. You probably already know about the show, which won the Best Musical Tony in 2007. But in case you forgot: Melchior, Moritz, and Wendla are teens in 1890s Germany who have been given little to no information about sex from their parents. The consequences are tragic. Now, if you are lucky, you also already know all about Deaf West, because you saw their unforgettable Big River back in the early aughts. (Absolutely stunning!) In terms of spectacular staging, Spring Awakening is on a par with Big River. The new staging certainly brings added meaning to the musical: in the Playbill, there’s a fascinating director’s note that tells us sign language for Deaf students was banned in 1880 (with the idea that Deaf students needed to learn to read lips and adjust to life in a hearing world). In this version of Spring Awakening, awkward and confused young Moritz is Deaf, and his struggles in school clearly result from his failure to understand his teachers. It makes perfect sense, and his ultimate fate feels even more tragic.

Director Michael Arden uses a cast of both Deaf and hearing actors to portray the teenagers as well as their parents and teachers. Sandra Mae Frank is an expressive Wendla, for example, who communicates through sign language during most of the show. Her constant companion onstage is Katie Boeck, who sings all of Wendla’s songs, and frequently holds hands with Ms. Frank. Seems bizarre that a young Deaf German girl’s inner soul would look like a modern indie rocker, doesn’t it? But it works beautifully in the context of the show.

The entire production is fluid and beautifully staged, with terrific acting all around. Plus there’s that evocative choreography from Spencer Liff (though I don’t know if the movement was as beautiful as Bill T. Jones’s choreography in the original production).

But as I said, I didn’t like it. I think it’s mostly because once you’ve gotten past the shock factor of explicit sex in a Broadway musical (and I’m certainly past it, given how many times I saw and listened to the original) you may start to realize something. Spring Awakening, to my mind, just doesn’t hold up very well. The script reads like a clunky translation of Wedekind’s original German, with odd skips in dialogue. (The original play is more episodic, but each scene seems to make more sense.) Plus there are definite plot holes, though to be fair some of those were in the original script. And then there are the lyrics. I understand that Steven Sater was trying to do something different, and more modern, with the lyrics more like those in rock songs than musical theater. But these aren’t even very good rock lyrics. Plus they don’t really sit on the music very well. For example, a teen sings: “I go up to my room, turn the stereo on/Shoot up some you in the ‘you’ of some song.” I sort of understand what he’s saying, I guess, but it’s just a bizarre way to say it. The awkward phrasing and (literally) purple imagery kept taking me out of the moment, precisely the opposite of what a musical theater song should do.

I hadn’t planned on seeing Spring Awakening at all — it seems like it just left Broadway a few years ago, and i didn’t particularly feel like paying $50 to see a retread. Especially not when there are so many new shows to see! But I was convinced by the rapturous recommendations from friends as well as critics. I don’t regret going to see it, because this is truly a beautiful production with stunning direction from Michael Arden. It left me wanting to see Deaf West come back to Broadway with a show that’s even worthier of its many talents.

My Grade: B
Ticket price: $51 (TDF)
Running Time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes
Standing Ovation Watch: 95%